DW Companies, an excavating contractor in Minnesota, is only three years old, but it’s grown from five to 25 employees in that short time. What’s more, in these days of severe worker shortages, they have a waiting list of applicants who want to work for them, and they have zero turnover.
On this episode of The Dirt, we find out the secret to their success.
It all boils down to their culture of making employees feel valued, appreciated and part of a team, something that took time to implement but has paid off not only for workers but financially, safety-wise and in work quality and production.
Driving that cultural change are two former teachers, one is the co-owner of DW, Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund, and the other is Ry Bostrom, the company’s social media and marketing director.
The two friends have also formed The Repurposed Educator with a mission of helping construction firms become places where people want to work and stay.
To find out what they did and how you can do the same, check out the latest episode of The Dirt.
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In This Episode:
00:00 - Why Talk About Culture?
01:22 - Kayti & Ry’s Background
02:53 - What Encouraged Kayti & Ry to Focus on Culture?
04:26 - How Do You Create Good Company Culture?
06:56 - What Is the Repurposed Educator Approach to Company Culture?
08:41 - Why Pay Your Employees to Hang Out?
13:18 - DW Companies’ Turnover Rate and Other Statistics
14:49 - How do DW Companies Employees Treat Each Other?
15:41 - Even Industry Veterans Are Tired of Construction Culture
16:42 - Why Construction Culture Needs to Change
18:06 - Where to Go to Find More Information
19:19 - Final Thoughts
Bryan Furnace (00:00):
Today we're here to talk about culture. Why are we talking about culture? This is the trades, Bryan, and yet we're finding in the trades we need to talk about culture more. Absolutely, don't get me wrong. The whole college conversation, sending everyone away to college 100% plays into why we can't find people into the trades. But another important aspect that a lot of time gets thrown under the rug by the trades is how we treat people in this industry. This is becoming a huge factor into where the newer generations are applying. So with that being said, we're going to talk with Kayti and Ry from DW Companies, and they have a specific task at DW Companies: work on the culture. How do you go about that? Well, that's what Kayti and Ry had to figure out.
As a contractor, why in God's name do we need to worry about changing the culture in this industry when we can't find new people and everyone's super unhappy and the suicide rate is four times the national average? Why, in God's name, should we change the culture in our industry?
Ry Bostrom (01:09):
I just have no idea.
Bryan Furnace (01:12):
I don't see any good reasons presented here.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (01:15):
That's part of our mission is everybody's complaining about those things, but what are we doing to change it?
Bryan Furnace (01:21):
You guys have a background that is unique. You didn't come from the industry. Can you fill us in on what your background is and what made you transition over to the construction industry?
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (01:30):
Sure. I grew up in the construction industry. My parents own a trucking business. They have pits for aggregate. They owned a ready-mix plant when I was in school, so I grew up there. But my parents encouraged me to leave and get out of the industry because I was part of the generation that if you didn't go to college, you were a loser. Your college degree was equivalent to the high school degree was what was preached. And I always had a passion working with kids and making an impact. So I went to school to be a teacher, and I taught for 14 years in the elementary sector. The last five years I worked in curriculum, district-wide K-12, supporting educators around curriculum.
Ry Bostrom (02:11):
Yeah. And unlike Kayti, I did not grow up in the way that she did in the industry, but my dad was an owner operator, he had a trucking business. I married a farmer. So blue collar is just the norm, right? I went to school for special ed and I taught special ed for a couple years, and then I switched roles and started going to school for school counseling. And then, Covid happened, and all these changes were happening in education, and things were getting out of control, and I just felt like I wasn't making the impact that I truly wanted to be anymore. And Kayti, my best friend here, her and her husband own DW Companies, and they offered me a position doing social media and marketing.
Bryan Furnace (02:52):
What made you guys decide to really, of all the things that you can do in construction, culture is not one of the things that most people in construction even consider because this is construction? We don't mess with all of that frilly stuff. We are busy trying to get work done. What really made you guys say, "This is an issue that needs to be addressed, and it is important enough that we need to dedicate real time to it?"
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (03:15):
My husband and a group of four individuals left a company that had a very toxic culture, and they couldn't keep people around. It was constant turnover. They had tons of equipment but no one to drive it. And after a while they just said, "Enough's enough. We can do this better, and we can make money." And I think that's what some of the hard pieces for some of the older generation in our industry is that you can't make money if you treat people super good and let them have time off and your return on investment won't be there. It was kind of a mission like, "We're going to prove you wrong."
Bryan Furnace (03:56):
I was just going to say, so it sounds like you guys were having a hard time finding people, you're having a hard time keeping people and as a result you had a bunch of machines sitting around. That sounds like about 99% of the industry right now. And again, how is culture this common denominator? How did you connect those two dots? Because when you say it, it sounds so obvious and yet the industry still hasn't latched onto this idea that maybe we are part of the problem. So what are you guys doing to highlight where the problems lie in reality, that it's not just the younger generation not wanting to work? What's your approach, and how are you guys doing that?
Ry Bostrom (04:35):
The tagline for DW companies is doing dirt work better. And that doesn't mean just the dirt work. That means all things. So we are providing a quality service, but we're also developing the humans on our team, and we are making sure that they're taken care of and that they're valued and they're feeling that value.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (04:56):
The only way to do better is to be very, very diligent about the work you're doing around culture. You can't just say, "We're going to all be nicer." That only works so long. We spent a lot of time taking some of the pieces that I did with educators, what Ry did with educators, and really building a scope and sequence of what that would look like. And to be honest, no, no one was excited about it. Steve was fine with it, but he was very nervous about how the guys were going to react. And I think the biggest advice that I would say is that you've got to figure out who your influencers are within your organization, and those are the people you need to get on your side and help see the value. Dozer Dan is a big influencer in our organization. And so when dozer Dan, he's kind of got a hard shell, but he's a big teddy bear inside, but very much a hard-
Bryan Furnace (05:48):
With a name like Dozer Dan, that is exactly who I envision. A guy that's got a very crusty exterior but once you break him open, it's molasses inside.
Ry Bostrom (05:57):
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (05:59):
And when he agreed to participate during the first presentation or the first development session, if Dozer Dan is participating, I better participate. And Steve is in the trenches also participating. Steve is not sitting in the back of the room on his phone taking care of emails while his staff is experiencing that. And so often, we see that in, no matter what industry you're in, that the leaders just kick back, like, "I already got all this," but being vulnerable with your team and opening up and it took several sessions before we had majority of the people on board, but it was just slow, and you have to be okay with it being uncomfortable. And as leaders, we have to deal with being uncomfortable. We have to lean into those difficult situations in order for growth because growth doesn't happen when it's comfortable.
Bryan Furnace (06:56):
So up until now, we've talked about culture in this just giant, big, broad term. What are some specific things that you are trying to change and improve upon? And then, what has been the impact to DW Companies as you guys have changed these things?
Ry Bostrom (07:11):
For RE, we have four pillars. Four pillars are brand establishment, team building, professional development, and community impact. So everything that we are doing at DW Companies fits into one of those four pillars. And that really is what we foresee coaching and telling about as we talk with other companies about culture building and changing culture in their companies.
Under brand establishment, that just means you're developing a brand. You've created a brand that's recognizable, building excitement around that brand, making sure that when people see your logo, they know what you do and what you're about. And then, team building.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (07:51):
So team building is separate from professional development. Team building is really that we're setting aside paid time for our people to connect with each other. And what that might look like for us is we rented RC cars and set up an RC track, and our guys all hung out and had this huge tournament done to find the race winner, and everybody participated, and they were paid.
And then, towards most of those events, we try to invite family to come watch or cheer them on so that families also build connections because we have to lean on each other in this industry because there might be a late night or something like this so that our people reach out to each other and help one another with daycare or whatever the case is to help our whole team be successful.
Bryan Furnace (08:41):
Now, I'm just going to stop you right there because I got a dirt company that's focused on production. And you're telling me I'm going to pay my people to run RC cars and that's going to somehow benefit my business. That's the attitude of so many contractors out there, yet what has been the result of doing these things internally to your organization? Has it been a net positive thing or did it just cost you a lot of money and was totally pointless like most people assume?
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (10:32):
It's huge payoff and being able to show that on our social media, talk about who would, as a young generation, any generation, be, like, "Oh, man, they do that for their people. I want in." And honestly, we get DMs constantly, like, "How do I work for you?"
Ry Bostrom (10:54):
"How do I work for you?" Like, "How do I work for a company like you? What do I got to do to work there?" So yeah-
Bryan Furnace (10:59):
And this is in a time where we can't find people. You guys are getting consistent emails, "How do I come work for you?"
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (11:04):
We have a waiting list to get in here. And I mean, I don't have to spend any money getting people. All these big companies have recruiters and that's literally their only job is to recruit people. And it's like, "Okay, it's a heck of a lot cheaper to throw a party for my people that A, showed appreciation to them, and B, is getting the community that we live in excited about working for us". I mean, we've had operator challenges and we invite the community to come out and watch. It's just exposing who you are as a company, and if you truly care about your people, it is a game changer.
Ry Bostrom (11:39):
Yeah. And I mean, friendly competition never hurt any team building. Just figuring out how to work with each other and figuring out, outside of the job site, building those relationships with the people that you're working with is so important. And we've really found that in the team building pillar, that pays off the next day, the next week, the next month on on-site.
Bryan Furnace (12:06):
One thing that I've consistently said is our industry, in particular, tends to think of people as assets. We're on par with the equipment, you might as well just assign me a number and slap it on my forehead, and that's the importance that I am to the company. And as a result, we have this industry, everyone's in a bad mood because it's long hours. Everyone's upset. You don't ever get to see home. You're not getting to see your family. And then, at the end of the day, you're not even appreciated for the work that you did because you might as well slap a number on your forehead. And I think, for so many people, because that's just the way the industry has always been, the thought of doing something different is not only scary, but it's a waste of time. There's not going to be any real benefit.
You're telling me it's going to somehow benefit me to pay my people to have an RC car race. When you just say it in those terms, yeah, it's laughable. And yet, I'm sure what you've seen is now all of a sudden, your people aren't assets, they're actually people. They understand that management thinks of them as actual people, and there's value there. And so overall, you have a happier employee, which means you get more production out of them because they want to work harder for you. And just tell me, what are your retention rates? I'm sure they're way better than the normal industry average.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (13:24):
Yeah. I mean, we've been in business for three years. And within those three years, if an individual has spent three months immersed in our culture, we have a 0% turnover rate. We went from five individuals to 25+ individuals in about two and a half years.
Bryan Furnace (13:42):
To go full old school, the old saying, "Proof is in the pudding." Here we are, in a time where you can't find people, turnover is astronomically high, and you can't attract anyone else. And here you guys are with a waiting list of people to hire, and you have almost 100% retention. The proof is in the pudding. It clearly works when you start treating people like people, and you change the overall culture away from what the industry has typically been. I just-
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (14:10):
Just some other stats, because this isn't my favorite thing to talk about, but I know people in our industry want to know what the return on investment is. So those two are really, big return on investments. But we also went from a company that was brand new to doing over 10 to 12 million projected this year. Also zero work comp claims, zero OSHA violations. So I mean, it goes beyond, just because they care about each other. If they care about the equipment, we have a lot less in repairs and mistakes because people actually care. I mean, one of the individuals that just joined recently at our winter PD, he was like, "Yeah, the first day I worked at this company, they let me put in this silt fence completely wrong and let it happen all day. And at the end was like-
Bryan Furnace (15:03):
Yeah, you did it wrong. Now I'm going to tell you.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (15:06):
Yeah, yeah. And it was like-
Bryan Furnace (15:08):
We are an industry that loves to laugh at someone else's expense because that's part of hazing, I guess, is the way they justify it.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (15:16):
Yes. And that never happened. Our guys know that their number one job on the job site is to mentor each other, whether it's their first day, whether it's their 20th year in the industry. And we've also had some people say like, "Well, you're just catering to that younger generation. Well, yeah, I mean, that's where we're going to go.
Bryan Furnace (15:37):
Who's taking over the job sites as the old guys age out. That makes total sense.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (15:42):
But it was an interesting thing. We just hired an individual that has maybe eight to 10 years left in the industry before retirement. He had worked at a very large company in our area and was sick of the culture. He was sick of the culture. And I mean, that's norm for his age. And he was like, "I can't do this for another 10 years in this culture. I need to be somewhere." And he had interviewed all over at places way bigger than us, and finally just called Steve and said, "Can I just talk to you?" and Steve's like, "I'm not really looking for an estimator. I'm just not sure." And they hit it off. And now his goal is to take over estimating, but in a mentorship role so that when he retires, he's got three or four of our team members trained in to do that. And he's super excited about that. So it is attracting other very experienced people too.
Bryan Furnace (16:41):
The industry likes to think of ourselves as just all of us being these super battle-hardened warriors that are out there moving the dirt. But the reality is we're all people, and there's a reason the suicide rate is four times the national average. It's because we are people. We do have emotions, we do have feelings, and we need to feel valued. And when the industry isn't providing that or giving it to you, that's mentally taxing, especially when you're talking over the course of a 30 or 40-year long career, that's really mentally taxing.
And then, another aspect of this is we're finding that you used to have that generational tie to the trades. You went into it because your dad or your uncle or your grandfather went into the trades, but we don't have that anymore. And so you're getting these kids that have zero industry experience, "Hey, that looks like a cool job. I'd love to go run some equipment. I'll give it a try." And the first thing they're met with is getting screamed at because they didn't know how to use a shovel properly the first time they ever picked one up. You're getting screamed at because you didn't do it exactly how you should have, even though you have no experience. Why would you stick around in that culture? And that's exactly what we're finding is they're not. They're leaving and going elsewhere.
And so again, the industry just has to recognize this is a two-sided problem and the industry itself is a huge chunk of that problem. This whole culture has to change, and we have to start treating people like people. So all of this being said, for people who might want to find out more about what you guys are doing and might want some influence on how they can change their company's culture, where should they go to find out more information?
Ry Bostrom (18:18):
Yeah. You can go to our website, www.therepurposededucator.com. You'll see some videos, interviews of our guys. You'll see some of our presentation from ConExpo. I also encourage you to check out dwcompanies.com. That tells a little bit of another side of our story, and it'll also link to RE as well.
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (18:40):
And we're very, very active on Instagram. Our local community is a Facebook community, so we're also very active on Facebook because that's where our local clients are and that's where our local employee base is. So we're very in tune to what our community uses for their social. We also are on TikTok and-
Ry Bostrom (19:01):
Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund (19:02):
... YouTube. So I mean, we're all over the place, but I would say Instagram is probably one of our most active places.
Bryan Furnace (19:08):
Awesome. Well, thank you guys again for being on the show. Thank you for having this discussion and thank you for what you're doing in the industry. The industry really needs this a lot more than we even understand we do.
It really says something when you have a company in this day and age where we can't find good people, yet they have a waiting list on the applicants, and they don't have any turnover. What's the difference? Culture. I'm sure their pay is not astronomically higher than any of their competitors. I'm sure they don't get magical jobs that are just unbelievable compared to any of their competitors. It is literally the way they treat their employees and the culture within the company.
So as always, I hope this has been helpful. I hope it gives you something to think about in your business. Thanks for watching. We'll catch you on the next episode of The Dirt.